Sunday, June 01, 2008

Kings of comedy

Just about everybody who was watching TV in the 60's and 70's fondly remembers Rowan And Martin's Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show. Both were classic examples of the type of comic variety programs that used to make up a big part of TV schedules back in the days of only three channels, rabbit ears, and getting up to change the station. In the last several days, we saw the passing of Dick Martin and Harvey Korman, two comic geniuses who each gave us many laughs over the course of their careers.

Martin had become best-known for his long-running association with Dan Rowan. The two met in 1952 and put together a nightclub act after the fashion of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, with Rowan as the worldly sophisticate and Martin as the good-natured buffoon. They worked their way up the pecking order, eventually earning appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and similar variety programs of the era. Martin also had a bit part on The Lucy Show as Lucille Ball's neighbor. Rowan and Martin filled in as summer replacements for Dean Martin in 1966, and went over well enough that NBC decided to offer them their own program.

Rowan and Martin, along with producers George Schlatter and Ed Friendly, had an idea for a new type of variety program. Although the duo's act was oldschool nightclub fare, the two were keen observers of the rapidly changing times, and along with their producers came up with the idea of a fast-paced, frenetic string of one-liners, sight gags, and topical humor delivered by a talented young cast, with Rowan and Martin's time-tested standup humor serving as the show's anchor. NBC had little confidence in the format, and programmed it against ratings titans Gunsmoke and The Lucy Show. Yet within six weeks of its debut, Laugh-In was the #1 rated show in the country, and would stay there through the rest of 1968 and all of 1969. The show launched the careers of talents such as Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Judy Carne and Arte Johnson. Laugh-In made catch phrases such as "You bet your sweet bippy!" and "Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!" part of the national vocabulary, even getting Richard Nixon to come on the show to deliver a puzzled "Sock it to me?" Through it all, Dan Rowan did his exasperated best to keep loony Dick Martin on track.

Harvey Korman presented an altogether different style of comedy. While Martin was the good-natured, happy-go-lucky clown, Korman called upon a wide range of talents. He could be a pompous know-it-all, or the hapless clod Ed of the "Mama's Family" skits that originated on the Burnett show. Korman got his first big break as part of the cast of The Danny Kaye Show. After that show ended he joined Carol Burnett and for a decade was, in his own words, a "luminous second banana" on one of TV's best-loved variety programs.

While Laugh-In pushed the envelope with its fast pace and political humor, The Carol Burnett Show was a more traditional collection of skits and comic routines that seldom stirred any controversy. Burnett and Korman, along with Lyle Waggoner, Vicki Lawrence, and Tim Conway, made up one of the greatest comic ensembles ever. One of the cast's specialties was their parodies of movies and TV shows, sending up everything from Gone With The Wind (featuring Korman as Rhett Butler) to soap operas such as As The World Turns ("As The Stomach Turns"). The show won three Emmys, and was consistently in the top 10 of the ratings during its run.

Korman and Martin were successful in other ventures in the course of their long careers. Korman appeared in a number of movies, and was a favorite of Mel Brooks, who cast him in four of his comedies. Korman was especially memorable as the politician Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles. Brooks said of Korman, "I had some real problems working with Harvey. I used to look past his eyes... If our eyes met, that's the end of the take. We would break up." Dick Martin continued his partnership with Rowan for a few more years; after the duo amicably split up in 1975, Martin also appeared in a few movies, but without much success. His friend Bob Newhart suggested that Martin try his hand at directing. Martin would prosper as a TV director in the late 70's and 80's, working on The Bob Newhart Show and its followup Newhart, as well as episodes of Family Ties and Archie Bunker's Place.

Each in their own way, Dick Martin and Harvey Korman made this world a little funnier, a little brighter, a little happier. Rest in peace, gentlemen.

For those interested in knowing more about these great comedies, I've found excellent sites pertaining to Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show.